Movie Musicals: Beyond Les Mis

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Yeah, I saw Les Mis. And yeah, I’m one of those life long fans who saw it on stage at an impressionable age and sided heavily with Eponine and her beautiful pangs of unrequited love. So of course I loved the film. Samantha Barks killed it with that rain-soaked rendition of “On My Own.” Hell, she was so good I didn’t even care about the rest of the film. I guess Anne Hathaway was pretty solid too…

But if you want to read a review of the movie you can just head over to Jezebel because they have knocked it out of the park this time with their snarky song-by-song analysis. And besides, I’m a little bit biased when it comes to reviewing movie musicals. I love everything from Natalie Wood’s bad lip-dub West Side Story to 2007’s remake of Hairspray with John Travolta, Queen Latifah, and Christopher Walken. So that’s a pretty wide margin of quality. And I love them all unapologetically. Because that’s just it; in the world of musical theater, the scale of quality is a sliding one. Sometimes Walken and Travolta singing a loving, dreamy duet in Hairspray can bring you as much joy as Tony and Maria.

Here are some of my favorite movie musicals. It’s a pretty showstopping list.

  1.  Cabaret (1973)It’s got the masters of the craft. Bob Fosse. Liza Minnelli. Joel Grey. And they all won Academy Awards for their work. When people think of musicals, they often think solely of big, flashy song and dance routines. A top hat and some glitter vests. Cabaret has some of that, sure. But like most of the musicals on this list, it shows the high cost of sequins and sumptuous living. Cabaret is the complicated love/lust story of a showgirl, her gay academic best friend, and a bisexual playboy baron – all set against the backdrop of unrest in the beginnings of Nazi Germany. The film adaptation has fewer songs than the stage version and a grittier approach to the story. It’s a fiercely compelling film and Liza Minnelli’s performance is complemented so well by Joel Grey’s take on the enigmatic emcee. Each song in Cabaret is arresting in the best possible way.
  2. Fame (1980)Fame was High School Musical before that was even a thing. The whole “teenagers singing and dancing there way through complicated life issues” but better because it’s the ‘80s. It’s the story of eight kids and their teachers as they make their way through performing arts high school in New York City. It’s not a particularly good movie. There’s a bit too many clichés and of course there’s a scene where they all go to Rocky Horror, and then they all sing in unison at the end when they graduate together and finally start their lives as real artists. But it’s earnest and that’s infections.
  3. Newsies (1992). I really don’t think I need to say anything here. It’s Christian Bale leading a musical about a 19th century newspaper boy strike. Really, what is there to say (except: Wow! I’d really like to see the Tony nominated 2011 screen-to-stage adaptation live when does it start its tour?).
  4. Chicago (2002). It doesn’t get any better than this, ladies and gentlemen. Scandal, corruption, satire, hot jazz and smooth liquor. And Catherine Zeta-Jones. Chicago is a feast for the senses with the Best Picture Academy Award to prove it. It’s got badass women, a healthy lust for fame and fortune, and Taye Diggs in a cameo as the velvet-voiced announcer at the club.Chicago has that strong pulse of Broadway running through it. And not the bouncy, marching beat of old golden age Rogers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson. Chicago has that desperate, blazing energy of (slightly more) modern Broadway. Be it showgirls and vice or whores and revolution, it makes for some pretty great film.

– Meaghan Murphy, Staff Writer

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About Meaghan Murphy

lives, studies, makes radio in Chicago. writes about it too.

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